Up and down the Kennebec Valley: Eli & Sybil Jones, Mary Hoxie Jones

by Mary Grow

From Rufus Matthew Jones, your writer goes backward and then forward in the Jones family.

Rufus Jones was the nephew of Eli Jones and his wife Sybil (Jones) Jones, well-known Quaker missionaries. Rufus and Elizabeth (Cadbury) Jones’ daughter, Mary Hoxie Jones, born almost a century later than Eli Jones, was a historian and poet.

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Eli Jones

Eli Jones (March 12, 1807- Feb. 2, 1890) was Abel and Susannah Jones’ oldest son. According to his nephew’s 1889 biography, Eli and Sybil Jones: Their Life and Work, his formal education was limited to China’s one-room schools and three months at the Friends School, in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1827.

Despite a speech impediment, Rufus Jones wrote, his uncle spoke in Friends meetings from an early age, in China and in Providence. Home from Providence, he helped organize, and became secretary of a local branch of the Sons of Temperance; and helped organize the still-active South China public library.

Rufus commented that when Eli took on these community projects, he had “barely become a full-fledged citizen” and had no family example to follow. The explanation, Rufus wrote, was that “there was something in him which forbade rest and inaction” when the inner spirit presented a task.

In addition to working on the family farm, Eli helped run mills in China and Albion.

In 1833, he married Sybil Jones (Feb. 28, 1808 – Dec. 4, 1873), born in Brunswick and living with her parents in Augusta. Her nephew described her (in his chapter on the Friends in Henry Kingsbury’s Kennebec County history) as physically frail, but with “a poetic soul” and a “beautiful, melodious voice and a flow of suitable words to give utterance to the thought which seemed to come to her by inspiration.”

Sybil Jones

Sybil attended the Providence Friends School in 1824-25, and worked as a teacher. She wrote poetry; much of it she destroyed, and Rufus observed that what survived was often “tinged with thoughts of death and the grave.”

Eli and Sybil lived in South China until they moved into their own house at Dirigo in or after 1833 (sources differ). The house, still standing on the south side of what is now Route 3 at the Dirigo Road intersection, is described as a north-facing, L-shaped story-and-a-half wooden Cape on a granite foundation. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since March 22, 1984.

The couple traveled over much of the world, in horse-drawn carriages and wagons, on small sailboats and large steamboats and on the backs of donkeys, spreading Quaker beliefs. Despite her health issues, described by one source as serious back problems, Sybil was often the one who felt called to these missions.

Their first trip was to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 1840. Their first overseas mission was to Liberia in 1850. In 1852 and 1853 they visited half a dozen northern European countries; in the spring of 1854 they were in southern France.

After their oldest son’s death in the Civil War (see below), Sybil spent time in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. hospitals nursing wounded soldiers. Rufus estimated 30,000 men heard her message. After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, she twice visited his widow to offer comfort.

Sybil’s last mission, a multi-year trip to England, France and the Middle East, beginning in 1867, led to the founding of Friends’ missions on Mount Lebanon and in Ramallah, the latter named the Eli and Sybil Jones Mission. (Your writer found on line a history of the Friends in Ramallah, written in 2016 by Maia Carter Hallward and titled The Ramallah Friends Meeting: Examining 100 Years of Peace and Justice Work, in Quaker Religious Thought: Vol. 127.)

The first of Eli and Sybil’s five children, James Parnell Jones (1835 – 1864), is locally famous as “the fighting Quaker.” Enlisting in the Seventh Maine Volunteers, he was killed July 12, 1864, at Crystal Springs, near Washington, D. C.

The younger children were Sybil Narcissa (1839 – 1903); Richard Mott (1843 – 1917; his son, Charles Richard Jacob, was Rufus’s close friend for many years); Susan Tabor (1847 – 1913, who lived with her father from his return to China until his death) and Eli Grellet (1850 – 1933 or 1934).

Between foreign trips, Eli was active in town affairs. In addition to the temperance society and the South China library, he helped start Erskine Academy, in South China (in 1883; he was president of the first board of trustees) and held official town positions.

The China bicentennial history says the latter included an undated term as liquor agent, given by state law “a monopoly on the distribution of alcoholic beverages.” The history comments that while he was liquor agent, “China had a dry year.”

Maine had enough temperance advocates in the mid-1800s to persuade the state legislature to enact a prohibition law in 1850. Rufus wrote that many people thought it insufficiently enforced.

China voters hoped to improve enforcement, he said, when, in 1854, they chose Eli Jones their representative to the Maine legislature “by a large majority over two other candidates.” (Though his nephew referred to Eli as a candidate, it is not clear that he was one: Rufus wrote that his election was “wholly unexpected,” and he had been working to elect one of the others.)

Because Quakers follow Jesus’ admonition not to swear oaths (in Matthew 5:34-37), Eli did not participate when the Governor administered the oath of office to the legislators. He stood separately to affirm that he would do his job.

Eli’s committee assignments included the committee on temperance. Rufus wrote that his uncle “seldom spoke, most of his work being in the committee.”

Fellow legislators devised a trick to make the pacifist Quaker speak: they unanimously appointed him major-general in command of a division of the state militia.

Eli rode home to Dirigo that evening and consulted until late with family and friends. When he returned to Augusta, sleepless, the next day, he found almost all the legislators from both houses and many city people waiting to hear what he would say.

Rufus reprinted most of his uncle’s speech. Eli said he feared appointing a pacifist Quaker to head the militia was “a little in advance of the times,” despite progress on temperance and on resistance to slavery.

If he was mistaken and the legislature really wanted him to serve, he would, he promised. He would order the troops to ground arms, beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning-hooks and go home and read the New Testament.

But, believing the legislature was not endorsing such a policy, he would and did decline the appointment.

Rufus wrote that the speech was frequently interrupted by applause and “made a great sensation” not just in Maine, but internationally, being reported in the United States and Great Britain and even in one African newspaper. The intended jest, in his view, let his uncle “preach peace to a very extended audience”; it also gained him increased respect among his fellow lawmakers.

In 1857, Eli helped reopen Oak Grove School, in Vassalboro, after lack of funds closed the high school that had opened in December 1850. He served as principal of the renamed Oak Grove Seminary for a year, the first of 10 men named Jones (including his son Richard, from 1870 to 1874, and his nephew Rufus, from 1889 to 1893) to head the school before 1918. In 1870 and 1871 he was supervisor of schools in China.

Sybil Jones died Dec. 4, 1873, at their Dirigo home. Eli continued to live there with his younger daughter Susan until they returned to South China in 1884, except for two more trips to the Middle East, in 1876 and 1882.

Rufus described his uncle as satisfied with farming, especially fond of and loved by his sheep and other animals; and a lover of all nature, who was happy sitting under a tree watching birds and insects, never knowingly stepping “on a worm or beetle” or killing anything else. He was interested in “fossils and geological specimens.” A frequent and welcome visitor at Quaker meetings throughout the area, he was also a respected speaker at China’s town meetings.

Eli Jones died Feb. 2, 1890. According to the Town of China cemetery records (with which Find a Grave disagrees), he and Sibyl are buried in Dudley Cemetery, with their oldest son, James Parnell Jones, and their younger daughter, Susan Tabor Jones (identified as Susan L. in the town records).

Dudley Cemetery is on the east side of Dirigo Road a short distance south of Eli and Sybil’s house, farther from the road than Dirigo Friends Cemetery. Family members buried in the Dirigo yard include Eli’s parents, Abel and Susannah Jepson Jones; his sister, Peace; and his brothers, Edwin and Cyrus.

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Rufus and Elizabeth Jones’ only child, Mary Hoxie Jones (Eli Jones’ great-niece), was born July 27, 1904, in Haverford, Pennsylvania, and lived there or in adjoining Bryn Mawr most of her life, spending vacations at Pendle Hill, in China.

From 1916 to 1922, she was a student at the Baldwin School, a private, non-sectarian girls’ school in Bryn Mawr. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in 1926.

Mary Hoxie Jones was steeped in Quakerism all her life, often traveling abroad with her parents. From 1939 to 1951, she held staff positions with the American Friends Service Committee, and served on its board of directors for many years afterwards.

Her historical writing started with collecting and organizing documents about her family’s history and genealogy. One product was a short biography of her father, published as a pamphlet by the Friends Home Service Committee in 1955, in London.

More general works included a 1937 history of the Friends Service Committee from its founding in 1917, and a 1961 history of New England Friends in the latter half of the 1600s. The first book she dedicated to her father, to his great pleasure.

A series called Pendle Hill Pamphlets included a history of Quaker poets and a collection of notes her father made for his sermons and talks – notes which, she commented, he never appeared to use. Apparently they served to “fix a central idea firmly in his mind” and “as a springboard” for his speeches.

Jones’ work was recognized when Haverford College made her a research associate in Quaker studies in 1962 and awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1985.

Her first published book of poems was Arrows of Desire (1931). Beyond This Stone came out in 1965, Mosaic of the Sun in 1975.

The first poem in Beyond This Stone is a light-hearted tribute to her father on his 70th birthday, Jan. 25, 1933. Before reciting some of the many greetings he received, she began:

I wish you much felicity
Now that you have reached seventy.

After five more near-rhymes, including “postal” with “Pentecostal,” “thorough” with “Vassalboro” and “Kansas” with “pansies,” the first stanza ends:

Or who else could maneuver
A message out of Herbert Hoover?

Many poems express Jones’ appreciation of nature. Others show her dislike of war and of modern inventions, including the atom bomb; machines that destroy nature to build highways; man-made “hardware in the sky” and flights to the moon while the local trains don’t run reliably; and Christmas that has become “a frantic helter-skelter” and a “worry” when it should be “a stillness.”

Wild Geese combines the themes.

The wild geese leave the north and fly
In V formation through the sky.
Honking above the pines and lake
I hear them, far away and high,
And hearing them my heart will break
Knowing that man has fashioned wings
To fly, like birds, great silver things.
Each carrying bombs, the planes go forth,
A wedge of death, as autumn brings
The wild geese flying from the north.

Main sources

Beard, Frank A., and Roger G. Reed, National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form Eli and Sybil Jones House, February 1984.
Grow, Mary M., China Maine Bicentennial History including 1984 revisions (1984).
Jones, Rufus M. Eli and Sybil Jones (1889).

Websites, miscellaneous.

Correction to Meeting House location

Your writer was probably in error when, in the April 25 article on Rufus Jones, she cited the source that said the family drove from South China north (on what is now Route 202) to the Pond Meeting House twice weekly, while he was a child in the 1860s and 1870s. Elizabeth Gray Vining, in Friend of Life: The Biography of Rufus M. Jones, wrote that his family worshipped at the Friends meeting house at Dirigo.

A reference in Jones’ Finding the Trail of Life to the road through the woods to meeting as “hilly” supports Vining: current Route 3 east to Dirigo is hillier than Route 32 north to Pond Meeting House.

The Dirigo meeting house was abandoned in 1884, when Friends meeting moved to South China Village. Your writer found no information on how long it had been used.


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